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The Colorado Rockies have a plan

You might not like it, but the Colorado Rockies have an innovative plan.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

"I suddenly had this feeling," detective Finch asserts at the end of V for Vendetta, "that everything was connected. Like I could see the whole thing. I felt like I could see everything that had happened, and everything that was going to happen, like a perfect pattern laid out in front of me. And I realized that we were all a part of it. And all trapped by it."

I sit here looking at the scattered puzzle pieces that are the Colorado Rockies' offseason. Befuddled, I've slipped into an Alice in Wonderland allegory where nothing makes sense anymore. Jeff Bridich is not a stupid man, and the problem he faces is a unique one. Because of that, the chorus of traditional transaction analysis rings hollow. What Bridich did a few days ago, trading Corey Dickerson and Kevin Padlo to the Rays for Jake McGee and German Marquez, might not make sense for the other 29 teams in baseball. But it very well might make sense for the one that matters to him.

Indeed, the offseason has been a puzzle, but is it one that can be solved, or is it just a mish-mash of Jackson Pollock paintings and hidden Beatles tracks? Does any one piece fit with another? Is there a "there" there?

At first glance, the trade of Troy Tulowitzki seems incongruous with signing Gerardo Parra and then the Dickerson trade.

Not only that, but the rumors, however overwrought, of the team's interest in Yovani Gallardo further suggests that a club many thought to be in rebuild mode after moving on from a star player may actually be re-loading to try and compete now—like, right now. Maybe.

And in our clamor to bemoan the absence of a nuclear rebuild (guilty as charged), might we be missing the impactful improvements to the MLB roster right in front of our faces?

Purple Row community member Muzia put it this way in our comments section recently:

I've been Team Nuclear Option for quite some time, but it appears the front office believes we already have the pieces in place to build around Arenado. I'm fine with that.

We already have 80% of the benefit of a rebuild in our system right now due to our terrible baseball since 2010. If Bridich thinks we should pursue some veteran reinforcements to raise the floor of the team (Parra, McGee, veteran starter), I don't see what harm it makes. It's a much better environment for our AA/AAA guys and at least we see some competent baseball.

My first reaction to the Dickerson move was the same as most everyone else's, but I have since seen and thought things that I cannot unsee or unthink. And before me lies a web of meaning that I am either weaving myself or slowly uncovering. Like Detective Finch, I'm trying to look at the whole board knowing I can't see all the pieces, and I'm starting to get a feeling. Whether lightening or madness has struck my brain will be told in time.

But I think something's there, and that something is a plan. Here is what I see:

Bullpens are evolving and growing in importance

I talked to new Rockies reliever Jason Motte about the modern bullpen at Fan Fest, and he dispensed with the traditional notion of "roles" immediately.

"You can win the ball game in the fifth inning with one out, bases loaded in a one run game by coming in and shutting the door," he said.

"For me, it's just going out there and getting people out, regardless of whatever the inning is. You can close a game out, win a ball game in the fifth, sixth inning. Yes, other times the ninth inning is technically the closer [but] as cheesy and Bull Durham as it sounds, if you're going out there, your job is helping the team win and, like I said, just get guys out."

Since the Save was invented and made an official statistic in 1969, the closer designation has been prestigious not just in ambiguous ways, but at the arbitration table and in trade negotiations, as well.

More from Motte:

[Chad] Qualls and I talked upstairs. And the ninth inning? It's another inning. All you guys in the media make it bigger than it is. Because you go out there, you blow the game in the ninth and it's like oh he [blew the game.] I think if you go out there and try and make things bigger than they are, you can't walk around like, ‘oh I'm [the closer]'. No one cares. You know what I mean? That's not being a good team player. Yes, there is pressure and adrenaline in those ninth innings. Do I enjoy those situations? Yes. But there's adrenaline in the sixth inning, one out, bases loaded, 3-4 up, you're jacked up when you're coming in the game, and if you get out of it, you're really jacked up in the dugout, high fiving the fans in the upper deck. It'll work out like it's supposed to. I've done this my whole career, I've gone in when the manager calls me in, and I'm done when I either finish the inning or he comes out and says beat it.

This is a new age of relief pitcher understanding, and a new age of relief pitching. The Kansas City Royals basically won the World Series on the power of their incredible bullpen last season, despite mediocre starting pitching. Jayson Stark of ESPN, noting the success of the Royals, has even recently suggested a new way to evaluate relievers like Motte and Qualls in something he calls Relief Points.

If the other guys can't score after the fifth inning, it makes it really hard for them to win close ballgames. And before you fire up your letters to the editor, no I am not saying you should pre-order post season tickets for the 2016 Rockies; I'm just pointing out the power of the 'pen. When you pair those arms with the parade of athletic and defensively capable prospects the Royals have graduated over the last few years, 2017 starts sounding not so ridiculous. The Rockies are set to debut 12 of their top 15 prospects by the end of that season.

In providing an analogy for how the bullpen needs to operate as a cohesive unit, Motte also described the flip side of the new strategy the Rockies appear to be going all-in on:

Saves [are] what they show on Sports Center. Same thing with the guy who maybe takes the 8 pitch walk and another guy that goes to second on a groundball; a guy that rolls him over. They'll show the guy that's hitting the sac fly cause that's the guy that [scored.] Well, he had a great at-bat but the other guy got him over to third. It's the little things in this game that you end up winning ball games.

Players like Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, and most of the farm system do all the little things by being above average in multiple aspects of the game without being below average anywhere.

By stacking the bullpen and upgrading the defense and speed/overall athleticism, the Rockies are aiming at winning all the little things inside of each game instead of relying on an explosive offense with a propensity to go missing for entire road trips at a time.

Project 5183 and young pitchers

MLB Network recently aired the most in-depth segment of Rockies analysis I have ever seen on national television. During the conversation, Jonah Keri provided the following observation:

If you think about the [successful] mid-90s Rockies, they had guys who could mash and they had good relief pitching. We've just seen over and over again how impossible it is to have good starting pitching in Colorado. You're not going to find any Grienke numbers in that park. If they signed actual Grienke, he just wouldn't be that good. So you are better off attacking people with platoon splits and fresh arms that can throw 97. Shorten the game as much as you can. You talk about the bullpen trend in today's game, the Rockies should be doing this in a more extreme way than anybody. They tried a four-man rotation ... but then they got rid of it. Go aggressive. Be counter-intuitive.

After joking briefly with Brian Kenny about the criticism that the move brought, former Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd admitted on air something fascinating, while illuminating his successor's thought process: he suggested that the most justifiable criticism of the piggyback system was in its timing.

"It was probably better suited to conceptually develop that idea in the winter and try to get people to buy in," he said. "Trying to do that in the middle of a disastrous season was probably, in hindsight, not such a great idea."

They haven't come out and said it, but if some variation of this is what the Rockies are doing right now, I am completely on board. They have time to figure out exactly how to implement it, and I would lean toward keeping five starters but being very quick with the hook. On the rare occasion that a Rockies starter is firing on all cylinders, you can rest the pen, but the depth this team has even leaves open the option to dip into Triple or Double-A.

In 2007... we had eight relivers that appeared in 20 or more games. Those eight guys had an ERA+ of 110 or more.

Where once I thought 2016 would be a throwaway season designed only to showcase young talent and clear space on the MLB roster, I now see a year of experimentation with outside-the-box ideas that could reap massive benefits for the future of this franchise.

O'Dowd continued:

You've got to win 65 percent of your games at home. From a pitching standpoint, the best success this organization ever had is pitching by committee. In 2007, when we did win, we had eight relivers that appeared in 20 or more games. Those eight guys had an ERA+ of 110 or more. I think you need to create a pitching staff that is bullpen by approach for the entire season. Use everyone in the organization from Double-A on up. You mix and match the entire season. Take it to a radical degree. The difficult part of doing this is just getting people to buy in. There's a large enough sample size within that venue to understand that you have to approach it differently. You have very little to lose by trying it.

He's right. Nobody around these parts was looking at 2016 as a contending year, but that doesn't mean it must be a tear-down year. Why not use the season to try out some new philosophies? The Rockies have had high draft picks, why not use a lost season to be a little innovative and unorthodox? Like O'Dowd said, what do they have to lose? The moves the team has made may not make a ton of sense when viewed through the typical analytical lens, but they cost the Rockies nothing in the long term and may provide a singular opportunity in history to learn about what vexes this team so deeply.

In the long run, it may have cost the Rockies Corey Dickerson and about $12 million in order to give this theory the best possible chance it can have to work. If it turns out that, in Bridich's words, "bombarding the roster with impact pitching" is the key to sustained winning here, losing Dicky to find that out won't seem like too high a price in a few years.

Jon Heyman and plenty of others have made it clear that they don't think you can take a 78 win team and make them a contender with "smart bullpen stuff," but I can't help but wonder if the Rockies offense is forever stuck in limbo, and so maximizing the rest of the roster is the only thing that makes sense.

One of the under-the-radar moves during this offseason that has confounded everyone from Ken Rosenthal to Dan Szymborski was the extension of Adam Ottavino. But when he comes back mid-season, he will be the fifth guy in the bullpen with a better than average career ERA+.







Jake McGee






Jason Motte






Chad Qualls






Adam Ottavino






Justin Miller






After them, there are a slew of high-upside guys in Jairo Diaz, Miguel Castro, Carlos Estevez and Scott Oberg; a solid collection of middle and long relief pitchers in Christian Bergman, David Hale, Boone Logan, and Yohan Flande; and an intriguing group of starters whose talents might be maximized in the bullpen, including Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Anderson, Eddie Butler, Chris Rusin, and Tyler Matzek.

You may not like the plan, but it seems pretty clear that the Rockies are making the bullpen priority number one, and they are doing so with history on their side.

There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. But there's a man with a plan over there.

Is it possible the offensive personnel matters very little?

An interesting note from our good friends on the Purple Dinosaur Podcast:

The Coors Field Effect has been well documented by Matt Gross, Peter Gammons, and most recently Mike Petriello. Todd Helton, someone with some experience on the matter, also called in to the aforementioned MLB Network segment to add his two cents:

If you got to play [away from Coors Field] all the time, it wouldn't be that big a deal, but you're only there for four or five days, and the extremes you are dealing with are so much that it just makes it twice as hard. I don't think people give you credit for that. It is a tough adjustment going on the road when you've been hitting at Coors Field.

It starts the same as anywhere: a great bullpen and shorten the games because the games can get long out there at Coors Field.

In brief, the Rockies are cursed to score fewer runs than anyone else on the road regardless of the quality of their lineup. If it affects Todd Helton, it affects everyone. Removing Dickerson from the equation doesn't hurt that much because his replacement will have his numbers inflated at home and killed on the road just the same. Additionally, the Rockies are set to debut David Dahl, Raimel Tapia, and Jordan Patterson over the next few seasons, all of whom have a decent shot of recreating Dickerson's offensive value without giving up anything in terms of speed or defense.

The 23-year history of the Rockies suggests that the offense will come somewhat randomly; the only thing left to do is try to dominate every other aspect of the game.

Maybe that is why Helton offered this proclamation:

It starts the same as anywhere: pitching. If I was building a team [in Colorado] I would start with the bullpen. I would go and get four or five guys that can go out and close a ballgame. When we went to the World Series in 2007, we had four guys that closed. I would build a great bullpen and shorten the games because the games can get long out there at Coors Field.

Next logical step to shorten games: get the best defense you can get

Now, the signing of two-time Gold Glove winner Gerardo Parra makes a lot more sense. The Rockies now have no defensive weak-links in the outfield. All have above average speed, instincts, and, especially, arms.

The Toddfather spoke again on a subject he knows well: defense at Coors Field.

When we brought Carlos Gonzalez up, I can just remember the difference that he made in the amount of ground he covered ... There's a lot of area out there. Those cheap hits that fall in that keep innings going, I think that really hurts the pitcher's psyche.

Now, Dicky could hit if his home park was in the Marianas Trench, but there are a lot of holes in his offensive game. Dickerson hasn't hit lefties very well (.299 OBP) and doesn't have much patience, as shown by a career 6.8% walk rate. While he has some speed, he's not a great base runner, and his lack of base-running ability has been made even worse by plantar fasciitis, which has the tendency to be chronic. He has also struck out 21.4% of the time in his career. His defensive profile is all caveat and little capability: he was/is an abhorrent defender.

Unfortunately that meant contributing to some of those long innings Helton and Keri were talking about. After the trade, the Rockies now have the best support system possible for their pitchers.

With so many promising young arms either already on the team or set to debut soon, giving them every chance to succeed while they are on the mound makes all the sense in the world. The Rockies should take the opportunity to back up Jon Gray and Chad Bettis, and eventually Jeff Hoffman and Kyle Freeland, with the best possible gloves and the best chance to see their good work rewarded with wins—not the pitcher stat, but the team variety.

★ ★ ★

High potential and low consistency has been the bane of the Rockies existence. As Thomas Harding recently told me, the goal now is to build something sustainable.

"You attack the problem with numbers," Harding said. "It's almost a college football like approach. The more people you have that can play, you just keep inserting them in the lineup, and if you have more than the other guys you're able to win."

The advanced metrics suggest that you may not be able to do anything about the consistency of the offense, but you can do something about the consistency of the defense, the base-running, and the number of dudes who can throw 96 mph. It may not seem like a plan in the traditional "buyers/seller" baseball philosophy, but every move the Rockies have made this offseason has been to strengthen those three categories at all levels of their organization.

The problem with the first iteration of project 5183 was that it was a poorly-timed half measure, and not that it wasn't a good idea. Bill James has since backed up the tactic as both a preventative measure—we all know how frustrating injuries to pitchers have been in Colorado—and as a means to maximize production. He concludes:

There have been several value based sims run that have shown how piggy-back rotations can present with a significant upgrade over the same pitchers in a traditional 5 starter / bullpen format.

In the end you have to consider all options, because clearly the current system isn't working. 524 busted ligaments over a 10 year span are simply too many. MLB needs a paradigm shift when it comes to starting pitchers ... one that goes beyond simply limiting minor league innings and pulling a starter after the 100 pitch mark. These guys are so big and so strong and so well conditioned their ligaments can't keep up with the stress.

If you get 20 guys—starters and relievers—who can all throw 96 mph and cycle them in and out so that no one individuals taxed too hard, can you normalize the Coors Field Effect? Suddenly, I'm overwhelmed with a mosaic of words I've heard in that last few weeks:

"I really think that fastballs play up in Denver for a few reasons and I think that's a way to be successful. Command your fastball or just have a really good fastball, but generally, you need both." — via Charlie Blackmon

"His low career HR/FB rate (8%) and BABIP (.276) are a reflection of the fact that hitters have a really hard time squaring up his fastball, even though they know it's coming. Not to belabor the point, but yes, between the velocity, movement, delivery, and location, Jake McGee's fastball is just that good." — via Ian Malinowski

"I always joke around I've got like a pitch and a half. It's a pitch that sets up everything else I do, when my fastball is there, I'm good and I'm ready to go, I can throw it when I want, hopefully where I want, it's baseball, so hopefully if I miss, they miss too." - via Jason Motte

"For stuff, he has a smooth and almost effortless looking delivery, he works at 92-94 MPH, and he can reach 96 MPH when he has to. He has a great looking curveball with bite that works in the high 70s, and a change up that should grade as average." — via Mat Germain, on German Marquez

In that same piece, Germain mentions that Marquez could be ready to contribute at the MLB level as soon as 2016. I love Kevin Padlo, but he was a 2018 ETA at the absolute best.

It wasn't the way I thought they would achieve it, but the Rockies now have the deepest pool of pitching talent in their history.

"I'll take complete responsibility for the failed four-man rotation," O'Dowd continued on MLB Network, "I don't think I got proper buy-in. You have to slowly but consistently get buy-in from your people in uniform and they have to feel a part of that process. I know I didn't make them feel enough a part of that process. And I think in hindsight, I should have just waited and taken it a step further. If you show intelligent people in black and white the success of relievers ... they can't refute that kind of data. I believe this would work there. I think it's a way to sustain health. It's a way to eliminate those high-risk innings."

And at the very end he threw in a wrinkle that will need further examination:

"But you need a great defensive catcher," he said, alluding to Yorvit Torrealba's excellent ability to handle a pitching staff.

"You need a progressive manager, too," Keri added.

I have no idea where Walt Weiss stands on all of this, but when it comes to "buying in" to new and unique kinds of bullpen roles, the Rockies seem to be acquiring exactly the right people. Qualls and Motte appear to have already bought in to the new age. McGee has been the best reliever on his team without necessarily being the closer for three years. The same goes for Ottavino for much of his last two healthy seasons.

They don't often put relievers on the cover of cereal boxes and video games, but these names may just hold the key to the Rockies' future.

★ ★ ★

"So," a fellow detective asks Mr. Finch after he lays out everything he sees, "Do you know what's going to happen?"

"No," Finch replies, "It was a feeling. But I can guess."